chapter thirty eight
The forenoon of the next day after the night journey from Rayleigh Abbey, found Ione March on the doorstep of that very distinguished physician Sir Everard Torrance. He had known her father, and had indeed been his guest years ago at Newport. Ione, as we know, was by no means morbidly imaginative, and she did not lay great stress on the words of the Seeress of Rayleigh Abbey. But all the same, during these last months, and especially since her father's death, she had been increasingly conscious of a subtle weariness, which sometimes grew upon her till it culminated in that dreadful feeling of utter depression and desolation for which there is no word in any language.
So now she took courage and went to Sir Everard, who, in the tall young lady in the serviceable plain black dress, could not be expected to recognise the little girl he had ridden upon his knee as he looked down upon the pebbles and sand of the Newport beach.
The kindly baronet listened with gentle patience to Ione's story, before beginning his searching ordeal of personal examination and diagnosis. As he proceeded with this he grew more and more grave.
"You have had a shock," he said, after a long and thoughtful pause. "Your father's death, your fight with the world, the discovery that it is a rougher place than you anticipated — these, and perhaps other factors unknown to me, have undoubtedly had a grave effect upon a constitution never naturally strong. I do not conceal from you that the greatest care will be needed. You must go abroad at once. You must cease from all work."
"Sir Everard," broke in Ione piteously, "it is quite impossible for me to do either. Believe me, I have a reason, and a weighty one."
"Be honest with me, my dear; remember that I was your father's friend. Tell me what is that reason," said the physician.
"There is a man whom I love," Ione answered him, without a moment's hesitation. "I would marry him if I could. It is, I think, the only chance for his life or for his success in his calling. He has been completely shattered by a recent severe illness."
"You are not making that commonest and most terrible of mistakes — marrying a man in order to reform him?"
Ione smiled a little and shook her head. Keith's reformation did not need to go beyond compelling him to remember to take his meals, to put on dry socks, and to see that his editors paid within a reasonable time.
"The man whom I love," she said slowly, after a pause, "is noble, honourable, great. But without my help I do not think he will ever be successful. I could make him so — or, at least, I believe I could."
Sir Everard was silent; bending his grey heavy eyebrows downwards and frowning fiercely as he looked at his patient.
The girl spoke again, in the same quick brave voice:
"Do not be afraid to tell me if this weakness is serious, Sir Everard," she said — "if you think it will grow upon me. Tell me even the very worst. It is far more than life or death to me to know just what is before me, so that I may make my plans."
Sir Everard measured Ione with his eye. Fearlessly she gave him back glance for glance. He rose and put his hand on her shoulder.
"You are a brave lass," he said; "I will tell you what I think. But remember, I do not know. In a case like this there is no absolute certainty. I hope I may be wrong, but, from the test under that microscope there, I fear that you are suffering from Pernicious Anӕmia."
The technical words conveyed nothing to Ione March. She found her eyes straying from the compact, straight-tubed, experimenting microscope of foreign pattern, under the lens of which there was a little speck of blood, back to the kindly features of the great Doctor, grown weightily sober with the burden of what he had to say.
"It is not usual — it is, in fact, hardly professional — but I tell you my opinion, because you have in you the heart of a brave man — or, that which is infinitely more and better, the heart of a brave woman."
"That little speck in the hollow glass means Death, then!" said Ione, looking at the single-tubed microscope with a strange impersonal interest, as if it had been a curiosity in a museum to which her attention had been called.
The Doctor was silent, but he did not remove his straight regard from hers. The little shake of his head meant, "I think so!"
"How long?" She spoke now in a slightly harder tone, yet withal very sweetly and gently.
"I cannot tell," Sir Everard answered gravely. "I should think from fifteen to eighteen months, but it may be more. With ordinary chances, and no further shock, certainly not less."
Instantly Ione rose to her feet.
"It is worth it," she said, half to herself; and then again, "I will do it."
She turned upon the old Doctor, who, his back to the fire-place, was standing with moist eyes regarding her. Many strange things had happened to him in forty years' practice of his profession, but few that had ever touched him like this.
Ione's fawn-coloured jacket lay on the table.
She took it up and stood with it a little while in her hand, fingering it. She could hear her own heart beating thickly. "Sentence of death!" it said. "Sentence of death!" But she must let him see nothing of what she felt. Instead, she smiled at Sir Everard brightly and sweetly.
"Will you help me on with this?" she said. "It is surely growing dark outside. I think there is going to be a fog."
The good Doctor's fingers trembled as they had not done at many a famous operation, while he lifted up the coat, fragrant with suggestions of its owner's sweet girlhood.
Ione turned upon him with a smile that shone gloriously through the strange misty look in her eyes.
"Thank you," she said; "but you have forgotten to tuck in the sleeves at the shoulders."
The great Doctor did as he was bidden with some difficulty, because of the curious mist which had suddenly fogged his spectacles.
* * * * *
It was a transfigured Ione who returned to 33, Audley Street. She had gone out doubtful, tired anxious; she returned with a light and buoyant step. All her difficulties seemed cleared away; her path became plain. Now she knew.
"Sentence of death! Sentence of death!" thudded her heart.
"Eighteen months! Eighteen months!" she retorted, and put the matter from her.
Mrs. Adair, from her post in the little back-kitchen where she was "doing the wash," heard a light foot come down the silent street, from which the chilly December breeze had swept both loafers and foot-passengers. It was a step quick, elastic, full of springing life. She heard it turn buoyantly into the narrow brick-paved walk from the sparred cast-iron gate of the little cottage house. With a hop and a skip it came within the portal and sprang up the two narrow steps to the door.
Mrs. Adair came out with steaming hands from "dollying" the clothes, to make sure that her ears had not deceived her.
"Wi' lassie, what's gotten intil ye?" she cried; “'ye come in like a licht-fit ten-year-auld bairn — are ye ‘fey’?"
"I think I am," smiled Ione. And, indeed, the old Scottish word for the high spirits which come to a foredoomed person, defined her position and feelings exactly.
"Where is Mr. Harford? I want to see him," said Ione, with simple directness.
"How should an auld wife like me ken that, lassie?" answered Mrs. Adair. "He slippit oot some whilie since, and I 'm jalousin' that he gaed awa' to look for yoursel'!"
"Tell me which way he went, and I will go and meet him," said Ione smiling. "I have something to say to him."
Mrs. Adair watched the swift lithe gladness of the girl's figure, as she went down the street in the direction of the park.
"If he's no a dullard, he will surely hae something to say to you, gin ye look up at him like that," she said to herself. "I'm thinkin' he'll hae pittin' his pride in his pooch and spoken to the lassie, to gar her skip sae croose. Wae's me, there’ll be a room to let, and decent lodgers are nane sae easy to get in this pairt of the country!"
Even in her childhood, or when she first came home from school, Ione had never before felt such elation of spirits. Something of Idalia's gay irresponsibility rose insurgent to her head. Anӕmia — why her blood fairly sang, her heart leaped! Ill, dying — fifteen months — eighteen! It seemed an idle tale, a period that would never end. And when it did — well, at least she would have lived!
Here at last was Keith, standing looking down a vista of leafless trees. He had a note-book and a pencil in his hands, and Ione knew that, according to his custom, he was setting down the thoughts which came to him.
"I could bet I know what will put the note-book to rout," she said to herself; and the look in her face was a fresh and radiant one — that of a young girl, innocently conscious of her own beauty and charm.
Keith did not hear her coming till she was quite at his side, and had put her hand lightly on his shoulder.
"Please let me look," she said. "Poetry — may I read? 'Carpe diem' for a title. That means 'A bird in the hand,' does it not? Well, I'm the bird. Please don't shut up the book!" And Ione read aloud with a dying fall, like the overword of a song, these lines:
“'Ere the bursting bud be grown
To a rose nigh over-blown,
And the wind of the autumn eves
Comes blowing and scattering all
The damask drift of the dead rose leaves
Under the orchard wall.'
"Why, Keith, that's sad; and when I have come all this way to meet you, too!" she said, smiling up at him. "Do you know, I did not think there was any sad thing in all God's universe to-day!"
When Keith looked at her he fairly started back, amazed and puzzled at the radiant beauty of her face, the smile that was upon her lips, the light that dwelt in her eyes.
The knowledge of how happy she was going to make the man she loved, showed in each thought, word, action. She gave a little skip of pure delight, and with the motion of a cheerful comrade who would change a companion's gloomy mood, she caught his arm impulsively.
"Come, let us go for a walk," she said. So straightway she took him off through the park, and the grey London sky brightened before her as she went, so bright and fair and young a thing she seemed.
"Do you know," she said, "I came out seeking you? Does not that make you vain? Or, having been an invalid, do you take all that as your due?"
"I take it," he said gravely, "as the kindest and most beautiful thing that ever was done to me in all my life!"
His eyes smiled seriously down into her dark and brilliant ones, now sparkling and electric with inward excitement.
She made him a curtsey, which seemed to Keith Harford more than half the sportive frisk of a young thing bubbling over with the joy of life. Ione marvelled at herself.
"Have you forgotten the Abbey and yesterday?" he said, suddenly thinking of her transformation.
"All but one thing — something you said!" she made answer, nodding brightly, almost defiantly.
"And what was that?" Keith spoke earnestly. His world depended on her answer.
"Why, ever since I knew you, you never said but one thing worth saying. I declare it is I who have to say all the nice things. Was there ever such a silly stupid Keith?"
"But dear!" she added in her heart. For she could not bear to speak lightly of so true a man, even in words and to his face.
"Ione, if I thought myself in the least worthy - " Keith Harford was beginning in his deep earnest tones, when all at once he heard a sound which caused him to stop. Ione was humming softly as she walked along. He drew himself up.
"John Anderson, my jo, John,
When we were first acquent."
The swift dainty notes flowed low and liquid, mellow as a blackbird's warble, through all the mazy grace-notes of a Scots tune sung according to the right ancient fashion.
"Your locks were like the raven,
Your bonny brow - "
Suddenly the tune changed. Now it was "Did you see my Sylvia pass this way?" Ione's eyes seemed to be looking up at him, though her lashes were drooped dark upon the white of her cheek. Her warm fingers were upon his arm, and the grey November dusk was already closing unheeded around them. But as he listened, wider and warmer horizons were opening upon Keith Harford's shy reluctant soul. He turned his head down, and when he had once looked, he could not remove his gaze from the radiant gladness of love in the young girl's face.
Then she stopped singing, and spoke in a kind of recitative: "'Ione March! Ione March!'" she chanted softly, as if recalling words well known to her. "'I love you — I loved you from the first time I ever saw you. With all my heart's heart I love you, and yet you shall never know it. I will never tell you. Who am I that I should touch your young life with the shadow - '"
"Oh, you witch!" cried Keith, suddenly understanding at last, the barriers of his self-distrust breaking like summer gossamer. They had stopped under the great leafless elms before they turned towards the cottages by the Park gates. Keith Harford would never be a simpleton any more. He caught the girl quickly in his arms, drew her to him, and for a moment the world whirled away from them in seething billows.
* * * * *
The newly-plighted lovers walked home. As they turned into Audley Street, Ione gave Keith's arm a pull of possessive happiness.
"Well," she said, "it's unmaidenly, I know. But since I have had to do all the rest — make all the love, help you out of all your stupid difficulties, encourage you with a bunch of carrots before your nose like — well, like the animal that dotes on carrots; in a word, since you have made me propose to you — I may as well ask you when you would like to be married."
Here she clasped her hands with mock earnestness.
"Keith Harford," she continued, looking at him with a world of mischief in her eyes, "name the day — and I will buy the ring. I know I shall have to do that also, when it comes to the point. Why, Keith, you would either blush yourself away as soon as you opened the door of the shop, or else forget what it was you had come for. And when the man said, 'What can I do for you, sir?' you would most likely answer, 'A pennyworth of fish-hooks!' Then, after that, I should have to lock you up while I went and interviewed the parson, or you would be sure to be gone when I came back, and I should never find you any more."
"Ione," said Keith Harford, struggling to win her back into seriousness, "you are not doing this thing out of pity —are you?"
"Why yes, of course — entirely!" said Ione, with a new and defiant sauciness. "I don't love you a bit. You are only a great silly fellow. But then, so dreadfully dear. I can say it out loud now. And such a baby! Keith, you do so want to be taken care of! But you've found the very girl to do it, and so you'll find to your cost, Mr. Man!"
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First serialised in 'Woman at Home' as 'The Woman of Fortune' in 1899.